Purchasing drugs - High prices fuel risky online trade

The Irish Medicines Board has revealed that more than three quarters of a million dosages of fake or illegal medicines were confiscated last year by customs’ officers after they were purchased online or via mail order.

The figures involved in this illicit trade are staggering: overall, there were 758,276 dosages of fake or illegal medicines detected; 246,951 units held were sedative products, 153,042 weight loss products, with 52,089 units bought over the internet to treat male impotence.

The board’s chief executive, Pat O’Mahony, said: “As with previous years, the IMB is concerned with the consistent levels of counterfeit and illegal medicines being detained year on year and is warning consumers of the dangers of purchasing medicines from unauthorised sources.

“The IMB strongly recommends that members of the public never purchase prescription medicines online as there are no guarantees as to the safety, quality or effectiveness of these products.”

That is absolutely true. The online purchaser will not know exactly what he or she is buying. Medicines purchased on the internet can pose serious health risks to those who use them. As the IMB points out, the supply of prescription-only medicines via the internet is illegal.

However, the pity of it is that the statistics do not distinguish between the fake products and the legitimate — albeit illegal — ones. This is an important distinction because the whole scenario does point to an ongoing difficulty with the purchase of legal medicines in Ireland: the cost.

The online trade points to a level of frustration or desperation on behalf of the Irish consumer who — in general — is forced to pay far more for legitimate medicines than consumers elsewhere.

A survey during the summer revealed a huge disparity between the price charged for medicines in Ireland and elsewhere. While other sectors of the economy have lowered prices considerably, the cost of drugs is still far too high and so is bound to encourage illicit trade.

Even on the island as a whole, the difference is marked. For instance, among other drugs, a popular cholesterol-lowering medicine is seven times cheaper in Northern Ireland than it is in the south.

The survey showed that a month’s supply of the generic cholesterol-lowering medicine Atorvastatin costs €41.59 in a Doc Morris pharmacy on this side of the border, compared with just €5.88 in Newry, Co Down. The same drug is 10 times dearer in the Republic than it is in Spain and in a number of other countries on the Continent.

Likewise, the price of low-dosage aspirin — taken by patients to reduce heart attack risk — is four times dearer here than in the North.

The chief executive of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland, Dermott Jewell, has said it is “outrageous that the price of medicine is still so astronomically high”.

The HSE has put in place some measures to reduce the cost of drugs in Irish pharmacies, but much more needs to be done.

Otherwise, this illegal and potentially dangerous trade is bound to continue.

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